*** (out of four)
I’m not a fan of Mumford and Sons, but I mean this as a compliment: “Godzilla” is a good use of that band’s formula. The movie establishes restraint and adds nice texture throughout, building steadily. Not until the end do things really bust open and explode to deliver, as BuzzFeed once put it, “mother[bleep]ing banjo.” In this case, mother[bleep]ing banjo means an eye-popping battle between a gigantic ancient lizard and uglier, radiation-revived beasts who have legs like a 300-foot-tall demon brontosaurus and heads like a staple remover.
Throughout, director Gareth Edwards (the promising-for-an-inexpensive-first-try “Monsters”) doesn’t just indifferently spend a lot of money on noisy animals wreaking havoc on the planet. With style and care, he crafts an enormous action flick without losing sight of the people working to escape and/or contain the ruckus. About those people: How often does a big summer movie boast talented, non-tabloid fodder like Ken Watanabe (“Inception”), Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) and Juliette Binoche (“Cosmopolis”)? Not to mention aces like Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen. You certainly didn’t see that in the last big-screen attempt to revitalize the classic Japanese monster; including Matthew Broderick and Maria “Who?” Pitillo, the casting of 1998’s awful, long, embarrassing “Godzilla” might be the foolishly comedic film’s only laugh.
Edwards’ “Godzilla” lives up to its billing as an event. With his wife (Olsen) and son in San Francisco, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, underwhelming) leaves to pick up his dad (Cranston) from jail in Tokyo, where he was trying to get answers to a tragedy from 15 years before. You don’t need much more background. The multi-city destroyers do a lot of yelling, which gets kinda old but is absolutely preferable to having them talk. (Imagine Gilbert Gottfried coming out of Godzilla’s mouth.)
“Godzilla” isn’t about much more than humans trying to survive and monsters ultimately beating the crap out of each other. From a writer whose only previous credit was 1993’s “Swordswallowers and Thin Men” (?), the script ditches the 1954 film’s idea of studying the creatures instead of killing them while still allowing emotion to remain paramount. Edwards generates constant suspense and puts us right in the center of the action; numerous point-of-view shots beautifully establish the beasts’ gargantuan scale. On bridges, in the sky, everywhere, you feel what it would be like to have these things on the attack.
It’s no insult to remake “Godzilla” with advanced technology, and sometimes it’s just fun to watch a passionate filmmaker let awesome things duke it out (like last year’s “Pacific Rim”). This one brings few new ideas—though I’m not sure what else you can do with this story—and will leave some wishing for more monster, less human. Yet it’s a treat to see an intended blockbuster elect not to pummel you into exhaustion but glide its way to a scream.
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